MEMORANDUM TO: OPINION LEADERS
FROM: ELIZABETH TULIS, Senior Research Associate
SUBJECT: Counterterrorism and the Clinton Administration
We would like to draw your attention to the following piece in the January 26 issue of the Weekly Standard, Showstoppers: Nine Reasons Why We Never Sent Our Special Operations Forces After Al Qaeda Before 9/11 by Richard Shultz.
In the mid-1990s, the U.S. government developed the capabilities to strike al Qaeda training camps, cells, and individual terrorists. Yet planned missions were never executed. In recent weeks, Democrats have criticized the Bush Administration as not sufficiently serious about prosecuting the war on terror. Shultzs analysis, based on a larger classified study, shows that opportunities to address the threat of al Qaeda were acknowledged and discarded well before the 2000 election. Shultz identifies the following nine major mutually reinforcing, self-imposed constraints that kept the special mission units sidelined.
Terrorism as Crime: The designation of terrorism as criminal activity (rather than acts of war) placed the Justice Department, not the Pentagon, at the center of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. As a result, legal instruments like extradition became the weapon of choice employed against terrorists and precluded the Defense Department from coordinating a military response.
Not a Clear and Present Danger or War: Both the Pentagon and the CIA were resistant to classifying actions that were not conducted by armies of other nations as acts of war. The Pentagon believed that attacks on targets like the USS Cole and the Khobar Towers facility in Dhahran were a force protection issue. Terrorism was understood as an ongoing threat that required vigilance, but it was not grounds for war.
The Somalia Syndrome: The Clinton Administration was haunted by the image of Somalis dragging the body of a U.S. soldier through the streets of Mogadishu following the 1993 special operations forces mission to capture Mohammed Aidid. The Somalia catastrophe also reinforced wariness of the SOF within the senior ranks of the military itself.
No Legal Authority: In the 1990s, lawyers at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community argued that the Department of Defense did not have the legal authority to execute the clandestine missions of the SOF and related counterterrorism units. The argument focused on Title 10 and Title 50 of the U.S. Code. One interpretation of these items would have allowed the possibility of the execution of the SOF missions, but ultimately [t]he Pentagon did not want the authority to strike terrorists secretly or to employ Special Forces against states that aided and sheltered them.
Risk Aversion: Not only were SOF missions considered too dangerous and unpredictable in general, but the political and military leadership demanded fail-safe options. Opportunities to strike at al Qaeda were lost because of fear of potential casualties.
Pariah Cowboys: Individuals who pushed for the execution of offensive operations against terrorist targetsnotably civilian members of the National Security Councils Counterterrorism and Security Groupwere undermined and marginalized by senior officials at the Pentagon.
Intimidation of Civilians: Military officials frequently stymied hard-line proposals from civilian policymakers by couching their own arguments in terms of the experience factor and citing the civilians lack of military credentials.
Big Footprints: As originally conceived, an SOF counterterrorism unit would be small, flexible, adaptive, and stealthy; each of its operations would leave a footprint that was very small, even invisible. However, when SOF missions against al Qaeda were proposed, senior military officials would demand that the plans be revised to include conventional forceshundreds of men, gunships, planes, a quick-reaction force ready for assistthat would mitigate risk but leave a huge footprint.
No Actionable Intelligence: The defense community defined the targets of the counterterrorism efforts fairly narrowly: Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda operatives were the focus. But actionable intelligence on these targets was hard to acquire. At the least, it would have required the establishment of intelligence networks in regions like Afghanistan and Yemen. But this could only be accomplished by recruiting indigenous elements in these areas to provide information and assist in the operations. But risk aversion (again) prevented the preparations needed for the acquisition of actionable intelligence.
The full article can be read here.